Innovative psychotherapy draws upon the healing ways of the horse.
It is written that when the prophet Mohammed made his Night Journey to the seventh heaven, he rode a mystical steed. Al Buraq, the prophet’s “night mare,” was a winged horse with the face of a human and the tail of a peacock.
In Greek mythology, the winged horse Pegasus was a divine stallion sired by the god Poseidon. As the faithful carrier of thunderbolts for Zeus, his name became synonymous with creative energy and wisdom. Legend held that brilliant springs of water burst forth whenever his hooves struck the surface of the earth. As a reward for his long and faithful service, Zeus placed Pegasus into the heavens as a constellation.Throughout history, the rumored, certain and near-mystical healing properties of horses have been celebrated and studied.
Though the horse’s value in physical therapy has long been acknowledged, the concept of the horse as a partner in the process of psychotherapy is relatively new. As the mental health field has evolved, experiential approaches have proliferated. Since the 1990s, greater numbers of mental health practitioners have discovered that using horses as vehicles for psychotherapy can provide unique opportunities to achieve results outside the clinical setting. There are now more than 850 Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) centers in the United States. Only 200 of those have attained premier accreditation by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International—and one of them is located in Davidson.
The college campus, as a microcosm of the larger world, can provide a safe proving ground to test the efficacy of some of these experiential methods. This is largely because college students now live in a volatile, high-pressure, virtual reality composed of electronic communications, rapidly changing technologies, synthetic foods, manufactured environments, and the drive to achieve increasingly unobtainable goals. Many of them long for connection and authentic experience, and increasing numbers of them are turning to other animals to rediscover their own human nature.
Enter Davidson’s unique relationship with a special place called Triple Play Farm.
The Commodity of Movement
Trish Murray, a licensed professional counselor and director of Davidson’s student counseling center, had never been around horses before attending a staff team building retreat at the local EFP center. “I grew up in Pittsburgh,” she explained. “I had no experience with horses, and I was afraid of them. To me they were one-thousand-pound animals that could crush me like a bug.”
But all of that changed the day Murray first set foot inside the round pen at Triple Play Farm and watched owner Kris Batchelor work with a Norwegian Fjord gelding named Monarch. “It was a life-changing experience. I was captivated by the depth and power of her interactions with the horse.”
Murray also observed that the way her team members related to the horse mirrored the ways they related to each other in the workplace. “When it was my turn in the round pen with Monarch, Kris was asking my staff, ‘Is this how Trish supervises?’ And they all said yes. And I knew it was true. I was doing there what I did at work. Not saying a lot. Being really patient. Waiting. It was remarkable. And I understood that the way I engaged with the horse was precisely the way I engaged with other people.”
Batchelor agrees. “The way we do anything is the way we do everything.”
EFP differs greatly from traditional psychotherapy due to the impact of the horse’s mirroring behavior and the immediate, clear and honest response it provides. “Horses,” Batchelor says, “are like one-thousand pound biofeedback machines.”
That’s because horses, as animals of prey, are extremely sensitive to people, places, changes in the physical environment, and things. They have millions of years of evolution behind their highly developed instincts for survival. “Movement is important,” Batchelor explains. “Movement is a real commodity for the horse. It’s their first choice for staying safe. They’d rather take flight than fight.”
So much of the therapeutic work in EFP begins with movement. “It sounds easy,” Batchelor says, “but you could spend hours on something as simple as getting a horse to back up three steps. What does that process look like? What are the tools you’re going to draw on to do it and how quickly are you going to achieve it? And what’s your frustration tolerance? And how comfortable are you asking for what you need from that horse—and just because you want it, and not necessarily because there’s a purpose?”
EFP provides what can be effective treatment because it partners a horse and a human in activities that promote relational issues of trust, bonding, communication and boundaries. Mutually respectful exercises engage the participants in healing relationships that often lead the client toward insight and lasting change.
Murray’s experience was transformative. For her, becoming an active member of the clinical team at Triple Play Farm seemed like a natural progression.
She points out that people dealing with mental health issues that are often addressed in traditional counseling sessions, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, grief, addiction and behavior modification, often are excellent candidates for EFP.
“Something that could take two months to resolve in traditional talk therapy,” she explains, “might be addressed in two sessions with a horse.”
Murray notes that access to this kind of therapeutic resource makes Davidson unique among similar sized institutions. “I don’t know of another college that offers EFP as a treatment modality for students.”
Savannah Erwin ’14 was one student who decided to take advantage of this alternative approach to counseling. “I had struggled with depression for most of my life, but it reached a critical point during fall break of my junior year. I’d heard of EFP in passing as part of my work as a psych major, but I didn’t really know anything about it until Trish asked if I’d be interested in joining a group.”
That group, “Perfectly Imperfect,” was comprised of four students who each were struggling with issues related to what Erwin calls the “perfection syndrome.”
That same drive to be the best is frequently a common attribute among students who attend top-tier colleges that couple high expectations with rigorous academic standards. The result for many is the creation of a pressure-cooker environment that can elevate stress to dangerous levels.
“The college makes it easy for students to reach out for help academically,” Erwin says. “We can talk with our professors, attend review sessions, or get special tutoring. It’s a bigger challenge to translate that openness to asking for help in other areas. Davidson is taking good steps to change that dynamic by empowering students to be vocal, and talk more deeply about issues like mental health.”
For Erwin, EFP was an important part of that process. “Learning to be mindful was an important part of the work. At the beginning of one session, the horse entered the round pen and had a visible response to its energy of the group. It was stiff necked. Its ears were perked up. Its feet were restless. To get the horse to be less agitated, we had to be present in the environment. That meant learning how to claim a space, breathe deeply, and be calm.”
Once the horse relaxed, the work of the group commenced.
The exercise of practicing mindfulness and releasing tension bore fruit for Erwin. “I found that if I could get a one-thousand-pound animal to relax, then I could apply that skill to any huge obstacle I faced. I learned how to relax myself, and defuse my stressors.”
Though a relatively new therapy, EFP was born of deeply rooted spiritual and medical practices. The ancient Greeks were known to use therapeutic riding as a technique to raise the spirits of the incurably ill. In the 17th century, there were many documented references to horseback riding being prescribed for people suffering with low morale and neurological disorders. In fact, English doctor Lord Thomas Sydenham noted, “there is no better treatment for the body or soul than many hours each week in the saddle.” Nineteenth century French physician, Cassaign, studied the relationship between working with horses and resulting psychological improvements. And during World War I, England’s Oxford Hospital offered riding therapy as part of a treatment regimen for wounded soldiers.
In 1952, Danish athlete Lis Hartel, who had lost motor control in both of her legs after contracting polio, amazed the world by winning a silver medal in dressage at the Helsinki Olympic games. Hartel attributed her miraculous accomplishment to her therapist—a Thoroughbred horse named Jubilee. Following her dramatic performance, research in therapeutic riding spread like wildfire across Europe.
Classic Hippotherapy, a form of physical, occupational and speech therapy, gained traction in the United States after James Brady, press secretary to Ronald Reagan, benefitted from its methods following the traumatic brain injury he sustained during a 1982 assassination attempt on the president.
Now widely recognized as a part of an integrated treatment system, Hippotherapy uses the dynamic movements of the horse to achieve a multitude of therapeutic goals including balance, posture, coordination, motor development, communication, and overall emotional wellbeing.
Connection and Common Humanity
A licensed therapist and a certified horse professional facilitate EFP sessions at Triple Play Farm. The work is experiential. Clients learn about themselves and about others through participation in horse activities and discussing behaviors and emotions elicited through the process. Clients may work individually or with others in a team approach, depending upon presenting issues.
“The clinician is the one who connects the dots,” Batchelor says. “And Trish Murray is a great clinician to work with. The process really is a co-facilitation dance between the clinician and the facilitators on the horse side who know their scope of practice, and aren’t playing therapist.”
Erwin and her group members took turns motivating the horses to perform simple tasks like backing up or stepping over obstacles. While they worked, the facilitators would role-play by offering feedback that echoed their own negative thoughts. “You can’t do it. You’re no good at this. It isn’t working.” Other group members would counter that feedback with words of support and encouragement.
Erwin says that for her, these exercises brought home the importance of focusing on self-compassion when confronted with difficult tasks. “It helped me learn how to internalize voices of encouragement when I am experiencing negative thoughts.”
Mindfulness. Self-compassion. Common humanity. These are the skills and methods Erwin practiced in her work with the horses at Triple Play Farm. And these are the skills she continues to use to combat downward emotional spirals.
Murray notes that although an increasing number of Davidson students are taking advantage of services offered through the counseling center, many who might benefit from EFP are resistant to set aside the time it takes to visit the farm.
“I love Davidson students,” Batchelor adds. “They’re so bright, and they’re so self-aware—but they’re also so darn hard on themselves. Working with the horses here offers a pure and distilled interaction. The horses don’t have an understanding of what class you’re not doing well in, what your GPA is, or what eating house you belong to. They’re looking only at what’s in front of them—your intention, your consistency, and your clear communication. Being out here promotes more connection points—more opportunities to see yourself as part of something, rather than the center of something.”
Linda Kohanov’s book, The Tao of Equus: A Woman’s Journey of Healing and Transformation Through the Way of the Horse, brings that idea home. She writes: “The Tao of Equus is about horse therapy, horse training, and horse behavior, but it’s mostly about what these magnificent creatures are ceaselessly, patiently teaching us. It’s about the courage and humility, focus and flexibility it takes for a human being to listen to those messages. It’s about the quiet pools of reflection we experience in their presence. It’s about the transformations that await us when we embrace our seemingly irrational sufferings with the same grace and dignity that horses exhibit in the face of adversity.”